Brooks Robinson got a phone call from his cousin Jennifer. She couldn’t stop screaming. “She’s gone. She’s gone,” she yelled into the phone.
Jennifer was calling to tell him their 34-year-old cousin Santayana Harris had just died of pneumonia, a symptom of COVID-19. He couldn’t believe it. Just a day earlier, he’d lost another cousin, Flora Robinson, to the same virus. It was a second blow, but not the last.
Brooks comes from a close-knit family, one that often hosts joyous get-togethers, including an annual Fourth of July celebration. They attend church together. “We are so close to the point that when one hurts, we all hurt,” he tells me. Flora’s death was particularly painful, since no one was allowed to visit and console her, forcing her to suffer alone. “That’s the most devastating thing about this,” he says.
To honor Flora, Brooks put together a video tribute and posted it to Facebook, sharing memories from church, those Independence Day gatherings and his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Then he did the same for Santayana, but he had to stop there. A few days later, a relative died of a heart attack, but “I just didn’t have the energy to go through another,” he says. By then two more family members had tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Flora died at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Georgia, a coronavirus hot zone with one of the country’s worst outbreaks. The numbers are stark. Just 91,000 people live in Dougherty County, but as of Wednesday, more than 1,400 had tested positive and 107 had died. That’s more deaths than anywhere in the state — more than Atlanta’s Fulton County, with its population of 1 million. There’s another difference too: This rural spot is majority black, and that matters in the current pandemic.
It’s best to describe Albany as a “big little city,” one with a rich history. It is the birthplace of Ray Charles and the site of a notable defeat for Martin Luther King Jr. in the battle for civil rights. It’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone.
The town will feel the effects of this outbreak for a long time to come.
Albany is also where I spent hours as a kid at the mall arcade, feeding quarters into the Mortal Kombat machine. I grew up in the county next door, which has a high death rate of its own. I fly into the Albany airport and drive about 30 minutes, passing cornfields and cow manure, to get to my childhood home.
In high school, Albany was where we went for a big night out on the town at the bowling alley or a movie theater with more than two screens. We took dates there to impress them at the Outback Steakhouse.
I’ve been calling and texting everyone I know in rural southwest Georgia, my family members, my old friends, asking them what the past month has been like. In some ways, I don’t recognize the descriptions I’m hearing, but in other ways, I do. People are leaning on optimism and religion (many talk about prayer), even as the coronavirus has strained the area’s health care system, tested people’s faith and pushed vulnerability to the limit.
‘When white folks catch a cold, black people get pneumonia’
At a small health clinic a little more than an hour away from Albany, a five-person staff is closely monitoring the coronavirus spread for signs that it may be picking up in their area.
Patients pulling up to the Flint River Rural Health Clinic in Montezuma, Georgia, are stopped outside and screened in a tent. Those who may have the virus are escorted to a “sick” wing of the clinic, where they get a mask and hand sanitizer. A nurse writes down their information, so no one else has to touch the pen. The only objects in the exam room are a scale and a biohazard trash can.
Despite all these precautions, the No. 1 challenge in containing the virus remains testing, according to Lee Hughes, a 35-year-old nurse practitioner at the clinic. He may order 10 kits from the lab but only receive five. There simply aren’t enough. Even then, he had to contend with delayed results. “The turnaround time on testing is just — it really, really puts you behind the eight ball,” he tells me, though he’s starting to see that improve.
Given the circumstances, Hughes thinks his clinic is handling the pandemic well, but as it wears on, he’s concerned about the toll on health care workers, who are getting “really frustrated.” Because of the limited number of test kits, they haven’t been able to properly test themselves.
“They’re not wanting to take the stuff home,” he says. Hughes has begun stripping out of his scrubs and shoes before stepping into his house so as not to put his family at risk.
For now, there have been only two deaths in Macon County, where Montezuma sits. But it’s another story just a few miles down the road, including in Sumter County, where Hughes and I went to school and where we both still have family. The majority-black county has seen a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases.
There’s a popular saying within many black households that “when white folks catch a cold, black people get pneumonia.” The saying isn’t literally about health care. It’s a metaphor about the disproportionate suffering of black Americans compared to their white counterparts in all manner of areas. (Think Hurricane Katrina’s particularly devastating effects on poor blacks in New Orleans, or the fact that the unemployment rate is consistently higher among blacks, no matter the prevailing macroeconomic conditions.) In the current pandemic, the metaphor hits especially close to home.
As more data emerges about the spread of the coronavirus, it is becoming increasingly clear that African Americans are disproportionately affected, likely because of “social determinants of health,” or the conditions in which people are born and live. Growing up without access to quality education and jobs, nutritious food or affordable health care can leave people especially vulnerable to diabetes, asthma, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, obesity — all preexisting conditions that make it more difficult to survive COVID-19.
So it’s not surprising that majority-black counties have “three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the majority,” according to an April 7 analysis by The Washington Post. Almost one-third of those who have died in the United States are African American, The Associated Press found in an April 18 breakdown of available state and local data.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took until April 17 to release its own racial breakdowns, which as of Tuesday showed that African Americans account for 33 percent of infections — but that federal data remains strikingly incomplete, with racial information missing in two-thirds of all cases.
In Dougherty County, the coroner, Michael Fowler, is keeping track. About 75 percent of those who died as of Monday are African American, he said.
A group of Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, want federal health officials to release data that breaks down COVID-19 testing, infection rates and deaths by race and ethnicity, but even their plan comes with a time lag. They’ve introduced a bill that would require the Department of Health and Human Services to “collect and report racial and other demographic data” to Congress within 60 days after the end of the public health emergency.
“Because of government-sponsored discrimination and systemic racism, communities of color are on the frontlines of this pandemic,” Warren said after introducing the bill. “To effectively slow the spread of the virus and ensure our response is robust and equitable, we need comprehensive national data on who is getting infected, who is getting treatment, and who is dying.”
Lawmakers are also concerned that discrimination within the health care system will lead to more black deaths.
“Some of it is just the way African Americans are treated in the health care system,” Rep. Karen Bass said during a recent episode of CQ Roll Call’s Coronavirus Special Report podcast.
Bass, a former intensive care nurse, is the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a co-sponsor of the racial data bill.
“Having worked on both sides of that system, I understand why this happens,” she said. “I can guarantee you — although this is anecdotal — that when African Americans show up sick, their symptoms are minimized. They’re told to go home, just take care of themselves at home. They do that, and then when they get really, really sick, by the time they make it to the emergency room, they’re put on a ventilator. And I am sure five or six months from now, when we trace this back, that’s the pattern that you’re going to see.”
That’s a lot like what Brooks says happened with Santayana, affectionately known as “Santa.” She spent a couple of days in a hospital in nearby Tifton, since the closest hospital was overwhelmed. According to Brooks, she tested positive for the coronavirus and was released to go home. She died several days later.
The most segregated hour in America
It’s not a secret that religion plays a central role in black southern life. African Americans tend to be more religious than other races, by several metrics, including church attendance, daily prayer and belief in God. For instance, 47 percent of blacks — higher than any other group — say they attend religious services at least once a week, according to the Pew Research Center.
Arguably the two most consequential historical movements in black America, emancipation and civil rights, were led by deeply spiritual and religious men such as Frederick Douglass, King and the recently deceased Rev. Joseph L. Lowery. But during a 1960 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” King once observed the bitter irony that Christian churches remained one of the most stubborn barriers against racial integration: “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.”
Churches in the rural South are still largely segregated along racial lines, but the current health crisis has inspired citizens to work across those divisions, says Ronald Smith, an African American clergyman in Albany.
“I’ve seen people just come together from all walks of life, from all denominations, from all races, across barriers, walls are being torn down, like never before,” says Smith. “Because down here in South Georgia, of course, you know, we still deal with some of that division when it comes to race. But I’ve seen a lot of that being pushed aside. There are pastors with predominantly Caucasian congregations that have opened their doors to everybody to feed. Regardless of where you are, they bring it to you.”
Two decades ago, Albany’s population was about 65 percent black, according to the 2000 U.S. census, but the city has grown blacker over the last two decades as more whites move into the northern part of neighboring Lee County, a place that’s essentially become the suburbs of Albany. Now blacks make up about 74 percent of the residents, according to a 2018 population estimate. Meanwhile, about one-third of the city lives in poverty.
An Albany native and Army veteran, Smith founded Berachah Fellowship Church in 2003, after retiring from Procter & Gamble. He knows the community well.
“You got to look at Albany as one of the poorest cities in the country,” he says. “And so this didn’t help us. You know, we just came through two storms. We had one in 2017, and then in 2018 Hurricane Michael. And so we’re just trying to get through it. Some people still haven’t recovered from the hurricanes and from the storms.”
Smith is worried about the economic fallout from state-mandated shelter in place orders, set to expire April 30, though Republican Gov. Brian Kemp this week announced plans to reopen businesses such as gyms, barbershops and bowling alleys by Friday. So far he’s had to lay off musicians and several other members of his staff “because people are not so apt to give” church donations during such economic uncertainty. “People are scared that they’re not going to have any money, and the money is running out,” he says.
He sees his main role as providing security, both spiritual and material. He’s acted as an informal resource center of his congregation, helping them understand the types of financial aid available to them.
He’s also worried about the pressures on home life as people remain in quarantine. Smith says he’s heard from a local lawyer that several people have called inquiring about divorce. One of his ministers has lost five family members within two weeks. A churchgoer who lost a husband and now has the virus will perform what is essentially a drive-by funeral, according to Smith. She will have to motor to the gravesite, stay in her car while they commit her husband’s body and then drive off.
His largest concern is that his congregants aren’t being allowed to properly grieve. “So you’re going to have post-traumatic stress syndrome and you’re going to have all types of depression and it’s going to eventually come back, but right now they’re kind of in shock,” he says. “They don’t know how to process this stuff.”
Things have gotten so dire that 18-wheeler freezer trucks have been brought in for temporary storage of dead bodies, an attempt to relieve morgues because the funeral homes simply don’t have enough room, according to Smith.
“That was a local request,” says Democratic Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia’s 2nd District, who represents the area in the House. “With the high number of deaths, and as the coroner indicated to me, the number of bodies that were beginning to stack up, some of the funeral homes were not having space, nor capacity to be able to house those.”
Smith, like many pastors, is having to adjust to preaching through social media. He’s been livestreaming and posting words of encouragement on Facebook and sending mass texts. “It’s pushing us to do things differently.” That meant no dramatic reenactment of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. It also means trying to comport himself emotionally and spiritually in a way that translates through people’s tablets, phones or monitors. “We as African Americans are used to feeling the service.”
For anyone unacquainted with church services in the black South, they tend to be “interactive,” with lots of clapping, singing, shouting and, most important, call and response — a way to establish intimacy between a shepherd and his flock.
It’s hard to measure the anxiety that grips a society when an “invisible enemy” rips through it. Everyone responds in different ways. Some people sacrifice and help their neighbors. Some grow defiant in protest of state power. Some lean on their faith to guide them through the mental anguish of isolation and uncertainty.
Some turn into “helicopter children.”
For years, my parents hectored me about where I was going and who I was hanging out with. Now, I’m the one calling my mom for updates on her social habits and grocery trips, wracked with worry.
On March 14, the day before the CDC told people to stop gathering in groups, my mom attended both a funeral and a wedding shower in Americus in Sumter County. At the shower, she sat between two sisters, both of whom contracted the coronavirus. Two weeks later, one of those sisters would be dead, while the other was hospitalized. My mom found this out on March 28 and told me two days later. Even though she was outside the symptomatic window, my heart still sank.
The Albany epidemic is believed to have started in late February and early March at two funerals. For a disease like COVID-19, there is hardly a more target-rich environment. People are hugging, crying, shaking hands after wiping running noses and eating lots of food. These are the events that define southern life, that bring family members back home from far away.
But I am not home, and I don’t know the next time I will be. I don’t know what that home will look like, or who will still be there.